Q&A: Older child consumed with fighting with younger child

Angie writes:

"My 10 and 8 year old girls keep having the same argument. The 10 year
old believes with her whole heart that the 8 year old should do
everything she says. The 8 year old goes out of her way to defy the 10
year old. It often comes to blows, and it's driving me nuts. The 10
year old's behavior is bordering on bullying: threats, blackmail, etc.
and the fights often end with aggression on her part. Please help
before they spend their entire summer grounded to their rooms."

I asked why the older daughter thought her younger sister should do what she said, and that that false belief was the source of the trouble. Angie replied:

"Because she's older and bigger. Logic, which usually works on her, does
not seem to get through to her. She is very competitive but more than
anything can not stand to lose to her little sister. And that seems to
have translated to: little sister not listening equals losing. She has
anxiety which has flared severely this spring and I am actually seeing
some OCD behavior now too. I think this is wrapped up in all of that,
that if her little sister "wins" it makes her feel anxious, like shes
not good enough. (We have a counseling appt scheduled.).

I'm reaching out for advice because when tempers flare I think I'm
making things worse. I just can't seem to find the right tactic."

I'm not sure there is a right tactic here, because the situation isn't based on a clear path of logic.

Your older daughter is feeling tons of emotions AND behaving based on a something that isn't true for your family. (In some systems a younger sibling would have to obey an older sibling, but that isn't the case in most cultures here in the US, and is antithetical to the way most of us raise our children.) Since she isn't processing that her belief is not correct for the situation, you can't really approach this in a way that uses logic.

My first priority would be to protect your younger daughter from her sister's aggressive behavior. While she may be exacerbating it, it certainly isn't her fault that her sister is having this problem, and she shouldn't be forced to violate your family system and her place in it just to avoid aggression against her. So she needs to be protected from the aggression.

The second priority I'm basing on the fact that you have a counseling appointment, so I'm assuming someone who knows way more than I do about why your daughter is having this problem and what you can do about it will deal with that. (I know NOTHING about why this is happening or what you can do to fix it, and couldn't give any recommendations even if I did.) The second priority is to protect your older daughter from her own aggression. Whatever you can do to calm her down you should do. You clearly can't talk her out of her belief that her sister should do what she wants her to, so trying to reason with her isn't going to calm her down. Music, a massage, Rescue Remedy, a warm glass of milk, crawling across the living room floor a few times (because of the arm and leg coordination that happens in crawling that can help clear your head). Whatever will separate her from the aggression and get her some relief.

I'm really hoping the counselor can shed some light on why she's holding onto and preoccupied with this belief right now, and can help you help her to get free of it.

Has anyone been through something like this? Was there anything you did that helped or didn't help? Any ideas what's causing it to happen?

21 thoughts on “Q&A: Older child consumed with fighting with younger child”

  1. Kudos to the OP @Angie for seeing the need to call in a counselor – because childhood bullying dynamics won’t heal unless we authority figures stand up and truly address them. Hang in there!My DH sometimes bullied his 3-years younger brother and his parents did nothing about it. Now my DH feels a ton of regret about his behavior, so much so that it makes it hard for he and his brother to have a warm, functional relationship.

  2. Is it possible that the older girl is being bullied or having other social issues at school? Ten is a common age for mean girl problems to rear their ugly little heads.

  3. Trigger warning.Yes, I’ve been through something possibly similar. Throughout my teen years I would have days when I was obsessed with getting everything right, and I would lash out verbally and physically at my younger siblings if they didn’t do as I said. In my case, the belief in absolute obedience had come from the relative who was sexually assaulting me, and he had taught me that if someone was littler than you, you had the right to make them do whatever you wanted. I know that’s not what any parent wants to hear, but your daughter sounds deeply unhappy these days, and if you don’t have any idea where it’s coming from, this might be it.
    No matter what, you are doing a great job parenting– I know because you ask moxie for advice.

  4. As the parent of two children with anxiety-related issues, the anxiety is what jumps out at me. In our family, anxiety often flares at the end of the academic year — there is no bigger transition time in a child’s life, and an anxious child will process that transition with a lot of big emotions. Children with anxiety feel OUT OF CONTROL, of their own emotions and all the worries running through their heads and the world in general. Being in control of someone — whether it’s mom or a sibling or a pet or one’s self (through OCD-like behaviors or eating regimes or whatever) — can provide a distraction from the relentless worry voice inside that child’s head.There are several good books on helping children with anxiety — just do a keyword search on Amazon and read the reviews/tables of contents to see which one feels like the right fit for you. Counselors with a specialty in anxiety will help. Trust your gut when evaluating the counselor — we saw several “family systems” counselors with no special knowledge of anxiety, who focused on what turned out to be symptoms rather than cause, before we finally got a referral to the anxiety clinic at our medical center.
    Practically speaking, you should probably expect to spend a lot of time doing high-intensity parenting when your children are together right now. Worry voices are EXPERTS at refuting all logic, so if you think this is based in anxiety, you might not be able to reason with your older child. On my best days, I try just stop the behavior as calmly as I can and restate the facts of the situation: “you are not in control of your sister/this isn’t a competition/everyone in this family deserves to feel safe.” Don’t be surprised if you find yourself saying, “you need to take time by yourself until you’re ready to follow the family rules” A LOT. If this is the summer where your girls don’t play together by themselves, that’s OK. There were probably times (when they were 3 and 1?) when you didn’t leave them alone before. You guys will get through this and they can still be close in the future.
    We’ve gone through times where an anxiety storm meant there were going to be a lot of bad moments in the family, and all we could do was make it a goal to have at least one good moment a day. It’s OK if the good moments happen during one-on-one time with your kids, and not when they’re together. This will pass. Just like a sleep regression or three-year old tantrums or whatever, it’s just one stage. With your help, your children will get through this phase and move onto another one eventually.

  5. Besides what other people wrote before me,I have 2 more ideas to explore. Try the “Playful parenting ” approach (book by Lawrence John Cohen) and check if there is something in the girl’s diet coke that may influence her behaviour.

  6. The only thing I might suggest that might help you through until you see someone (and I am sure you will have thought of it, but just in case) is watching them closely and distracting/separating them when they are in a situation that looks like it might get out of control.Of course that might involve keeping them in different rooms 24-7 in which case this suggestion is probably no help at all 🙁

  7. I will go out on a limb and say to let the younger one spend some time with grandma or an aunt this summer to help break the cycle. When your older one doesn’t have somebody to push around, she may be more open to other things you can help her try for calming her feelings. This also gets younger daughter some 1:1 attention which is probably hard to have right now with you when you are in the thick of it with older child. I hope therapy helps you get to the root of her problem and correct it. ((((hugs))))

  8. I have no advice or insights to add, as our situation is somewhat different. But I just want to say thanks for the crawling-across-the-floor idea. Running up & down the sidewalk works for our 7yo tantrum-thrower…but it can be inconvenient. (She always wants someone to come along, and MN weather isn’t always cooperative.) Crawling across the floor is perfect! I can see how the cross-lateral movement would have that effect. I’m tucking this idea away for next time. 🙂

  9. This hit really close to home. I spent what feels like my entire childhood locked in a power struggle with my 18m younger sister. In high school we became friends. I saw us as in competition, but her perspective was that I was always mean to her and she didn’t know why and fought back. I think she was right- I never remember not feeling jealous and threatened.I have thought so much about WHY and can’t solve the puzzle. My parents were spankers and we got spanked the most for fighting. My dad was a mean teaser of my mom and had an anger problem. My sister seemed to have a natural friend-making ability I lacked and I was getting verbally bullied at school (but it started before then).
    Then the two of us turned around and deliberately excluded sister #3 all the time. I feel wretched about all of it. It’s a wonder we’re all friends today.

  10. Cdg and me are the same – sister made friends, poor communication model from parents, didn’t fit in socially… I also spent my childhood locking horns with my younger sister, we became extremely close when I left for college. I eventually spent a couple years in my early 30’s working with a wonderful therapist to develop these skills as an adult.I recall some really knock-down drag out battles with my sister, and also feeling that “winning” them wasn’t very satisfying. I wish my parents had taken us to a counselor in middle school. Every middle schooler should have a counselor.

  11. It sounds to me like you’re on track with bringing a counselor into the situation.My only advice is regarding your younger daughter, as I grew up with a (younger) sister who, though we didn’t realize until she was much older, had some major anxiety issues, and I was definitely her scapegoat growing up. She would lash out at me for NO reason at all, and I was constantly being blamed for starting fights, or at least my parents would assume it was a 50/50 deal. It took them until I moved out for college (when they became the scapegoats) to realize that it was an issue with HER, not the two of us together. It was really difficult for me, and I struggled (and still struggle) with guilt over feeling like I had the ability to improve our relationship and I just wasn’t good enough or trying hard enough. As an adult, I realize that, though I was by no means perfect, the problem in our toxic relationship was and is her. So my advice is to let your younger daughter know that, although she certainly plays some part at times, you realize she’s being bullied by her sister and offer her the emotional support she needs to deal with what is happening.
    It would have meant the world to me to know my parents understood it wasn’t all my fault. And it would have been healthier for our whole family if they had gotten her help dealing with her anxiety and anger much earlier, so I commend you for doing that.

  12. I’m not in nearly the same situation (just on DS who is 5), but we were having issues with off track behavior and I eventually stumbled upon a self guided program called “No More Hitting” by a non-profit group that I am now in love with. There are several well written articles on a wide variety of parenting situations. They also have a set of booklets for sale called “Listening To Children” that spells out their method/technique- I think they’re awesome! Please check it out and see if any of it clicks with you.You’re a great mom dealing with a tough situation. You’re doing your best and are the best mom for your kids.

  13. I have had a little of the same situation with my much younger girls – 5.5 and 4. As they are so much younger, what I suggest may be completely irrelevant to an older sibling dynamic. I found my older daughter was particularly insistant that younger daughter do exactly what she commanded around art, the thing that older daughter is particularly passionate about and good at. It helped to reinforce ‘all artists make art in different ways’ and also to make space for eldest daughter to do her art on her own rather than side by side with younger. More individual parental attention helped as well. Perhaps pointing out in non confrontational times how different people do things differently might help eg ‘Daddy makes lasagne with mushrooms and I make it with herbs, isn’t it great that we do it differently so we get to have 2 yummy types of lasagne.’With your girls, I would definitely suggest separating them as much as possible, sending them to different camps, different relatives etc as much as you can. It will involve more running around for you but might give you much more peace. It might also be important to let your older daughter excel at something without feeling her younger sister is nipping at her heels. If older daughter is queen bee somewhere else, she may feel less need to dominate her sister.
    If you can make sure their relationship is not too damaged while the issues are worked out then they can come back to being sisters who usually like each other later on. Not having had a sister myself, I find some of these sister things hard to work out – life was simpler for me with 2 brothers! Apologies, if some of this doesn’t make sense, I’m working with a sleep deprived baby brain!

  14. It sounds to me as if the original poster is doing the very best she can with the situation. No advice here. I grew up as the younger sister. My older sister still has MAJOR anger management issues. I don’t think there’s a thing my Mom could have done. Except maybe not make me ride to school with my bullying sister. I don’t really mean that. It was a long way to school and Mom worked hard. I’ve had my share of issues when I was younger (in my 20s), but I don’t think they were connected with my sister’s treatment of me. As a kid, I knew Mom was there for me if I needed help.

  15. my 10 yo son and i both suffer from anxiety. i lived with it undiagnosed until i was in my mid-40’s, and it led me to feel small, powerless and incompetent. my son’s anxiety led to developmentally inappropriate fears of being alone, hair-trigger frustration, and violent outbursts. talk therapy and medication has been a life-saver for both of us, but as between the two, the meds are what has made the most immediate and concrete difference for both of us. in both our cases, even though we are not biologically related, it seems there is a biological basis for our anxiety. in my case, there are also probably family-of-origin issues that i am working on, but really, i feel like medication more than anything has been transformative.

  16. Sorry I haven’t posted here in a long time – you know, life happens! Here’s a 2-part tip that may help.We all know that when a child is aggressive or angry, the fight or flight switch in her brain gets tripped and cortisol is distributed through out her body. Cortisol remains in the body for 2-3 hours, which can cause repeated flare-ups and more fighting.
    However, if a child drinks a glass of water, the cortisol leaves the body in 5 minutes—in 5 MINUTES people!
    Problem: Getting an angry child to drink a glass of water. The way to get her to drink the water is to help her learn how to reduce her anger.
    Method #1: There’s a great book called the Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Greene. He suggests that you help a child learn about the degrees of anger by having the child use numbers to express how mad she is. You ask, “How angry are you? Choose a number between 1-10 that lets me know how mad you are.” Sooner rather than later your child begins to identify the degrees of her anger instead of always thinking her anger is a 10+.
    Method #2: Another way to help her learn about her anger is to introduce the concept of zones. There is the Hot, Warm or Cold zones, or as Heather Chauvin suggests Red, Yellow and Green Zones.
    Keeping others safe: We all know it’s hard to talk to a child or get them to respond when they’re filled with anger. Parents need to respect that’s where the child is for the moment, take a breath and wait for him/her to move out of the intensity of that zone. You might say, “You need to move away from your sister now and come stand beside me. Take 10 deep breaths and then we can talk.”
    Drinking the Water: Taking 10 deep breaths begins moving her from the hot to the warm zone. She can still feel her anger but isn’t fully engaged in it. After the 10 breaths you say, “You know the rule in our house, when anyone is angry, is they have to drink a glass of water before talking.” Now that she has downed the water she’s in the warm zone and you slowly begin talking about this. Remember it takes 5 minutes for the cortisol to be metabolized.
    The warm zone is when the teaching comes into play. Think about framing the conversation as an opportunity for her to ‘state her case’ instead of her thinking she is on the hot seat for her behavior. After all she’s learning how to deal with these powerful feelings and needs new ways to understand and express them. You might say, “Tell me why you’re mad? Why you think your sister should do as you say?” Whatever is relevant to the situation at hand. This line of questioning allows her to feel heard as she learns that no one really rules over another in life.
    As a parent educator, I think seeing someone is a great idea.
    P.S. Shameless plug: My book Stop Reacting and Start Responding is filled with ways to respond and teach at the same time. I hope this helps.

  17. Thank you, everyone. All good insights. I think anon’s (for the sake of my anxious children’s) advice on the high-intensity parenting hit a chord. That’s what I feel like is happening now. I’m refereeing their fights, constantly listening for escalations. I feel like they are toddlers again. And my 10 year old is attention seeking like CRAZY and needs constant reassurance.I think that we only just now are realizing that this is anxiety-related and now that we know that, a lot of previous behaviors are clicking into place. I have problems with anxiety, as does just about every female family member in my mom’s family, so she comes by it naturally.
    I agree that the transition from school is hard for her and always has been. Last year, she developed some moderately severe tics — eye blinking, head shaking, coughing, etc — right about the same time. I am still not certain if the things that we are calling OCD-like are OCD or tics. But the difference this year is that the tics calmed down during Memorial Day weekend and the long break from school. This year, they flared even more and she actually seems worse at home then at school.
    I also think that there are self-esteem issues here as well, that she does not feel as loved and appreciated as her younger sister. This makes me very sad. I am working to amend those feelings while at the same time trying not to reinforce/reward the attention seeking behavior that stems from those incorrect thoughts. (She is very much loved and appreciated in this family.)
    Anyway, I appreciate all the advice and have some great resources to investigate. Unfortunately, we can’t get in to the recommedend counselor until the end of June, so I am trying to do what I can based on what I already know about anxiety.

  18. Weird question, but if it’s worse when at school rather than at home, it could just be anxiety from the environment BUT does she eat school lunches? Or is there something she eats in a packed school lunch that she doesn’t eat when home on holidays? or something she eats for breakfast on school days when you’re rushing out the door that she doesn’t have the rest of the time? or does her teacher wear strong perfume? or is there some other food or chemical exposure that happens at school but not at home, or at school more than at home?2 out of my 3 kids (still little) show a range of obsessive behaviours which are entirely food intolerance related and can be entirely dealt with through diet (in particular, limited wheat and no cow dairy, no additives/preservatives, also can’t have too much fruit (salicylates)). http://fedup.com.au/ is a fantastic resource for food intolerance. Re tics see here http://fedup.com.au/factsheets/symptom-factsheets/tics-tic-disorder-tourette-symptoms. There are other fact sheets too.
    What I found really amazing was the change in my DD2 (who as a baby/toddler was obsessive, anxious, would scream inconsolably at unpredictable triggers, didn’t interact easily with new people, and was quasi-sensory avoidant) when we got rid of most of the wheat in our diet. She was a different child – happy, cheery, cooperative, eager to make new friends, physically affectionate and more adventurous. If we overindulge on wheat we have that sad, cranky little girl back on our hands. I had resisted ditching wheat for years because I thought it would be impossible but in the end it was just changing breakfast cereal, breads and pasta to GF ones and it was so worth it. We did NOTHING else to manage her behaviour other than the dietary change.
    The difference food can make to behaviour cannot be overstated. Before we changed our kids’ diets they had an objectively healthy diet (wholegrains, fruit and veg, cow milk and cheese) but for them it isn’t what they need to be happy and healthy. So when I suggest food may be the cause, please don’t think I am suggesting you aren’t feeding your kids healthy food!
    It’s particularly worth considering if you’ve got any other food intolerance in your family, eg asthma, eczema, sleep disturbance, migraines/other recurring headaches, IBS, or if (TMI) she has malformed/sticky poos. These are all red flags that something is going on with food/in the gut.
    I hope you have a good summer holiday!

  19. I loved reading “Siblings Without Rivalry” and “How to talk so kids will listen,” both by the same authors. I like how feelings are acknowledged and allowed to be felt and expressed (safely) in the tactics/scenarios that are described; logic need not enter into the situation. Emotions aren’t logical, and I think it’s possible to feel (and then act) very intensely without necessarily having anxiety “issues.” This post also made me want to reread “The Dance of Anger,” which describes how bad family dynamics (passed down from previous generations) can be changed.Yes, I come from a family with a lot of intensity and anger issues.

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